Having the opportunity to experience music live is becoming increasingly and frustratingly rare. Last Saturday night brought one such opportunity. King’s Place in London played host to a mini-festival of concerts under the banner Swept Away – a weekend of music dedicated to composers from the Weimar Republic who’ve been brushed aside by history amid the tumult of the early twentieth-century’s economic struggle, political shifts and, ultimately, war. I must confess a certain amount of ignorance when it comes to ‘art music’ of the 1920s. Some big names dominate that era, to be sure – Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Varèse, Messiaen, the Second Viennese School, etc. – and I’m very familiar with their work. But what about everyone else? The inter-war years must have been more fertile than history likes us to think. Germany in particular, with all its musical heritage, surely had more going on than the canon would have us believe. Swept Away shone a bright beam into those dimly-lit corners of music’s past. Regrettably, I only made it to one of the concerts, which really annoyed me afterwards – I had such a great time.
The two figures most present in Saturday night’s event were pianist Douglas Finch, who played in all but two pieces, and composer Ernst Toch, whose music (all UK premieres) filled most of the programme. We were treated to an impromptu introduction by Lawrence Weschler, grandson of Ernst Toch, who (despite interjections from an extremely rude audience member) spent a few minutes imparting some personal thoughts on his grandfather’s circumstances and the unfair neglect his music has suffered. Weschler’s words were a beautiful counterpoint to Erik Levi’s pre-concert talk, which looked at how the historical upheavals in the era of the Weimar Republic affected Germany’s cultural life. Levi was keen to paint his picture of the period from composers’ points of view, taking a range of known and unknown names into account. The birth of Modernism was, perhaps obviously, a big talking point. We might think of the early Weimar Republic as a failed experiment, as a stop-gap between horrific atrocities, but this was clearly an exciting time full of expressive possibilities and new technologies. I found myself enraptured by Levi’s lecture (not to mention a little embarrassed that I was only now paying close attention to the ’20s), and went into the concert with all musical and historical synapses firing. Weschler’s eulogy, complete with family anecdotes, added a ‘human’ touch to proceedings, offering an emotional connection to the event, which I might otherwise have treated (unfairly) like a heartless, carefully studied museum exhibit. You can read an extended version of Weschler’s speech in the Guardian.
And so to the music. Where to begin? One of the most engaging aspects of the concert was its variety, which stemmed mainly from changes to the instrumental line-up. Neither the repeated appearance of Toch nor the single appearance of Hindemith’s familiar voice overbalanced the programme. All the pieces were written within a six-year period (1923-29), which nicely tied everything together. It’s hard to say what I enjoyed most. In fact, it’s easiest to say what I enjoyed least. Toch’s Cello Sonata, played well by Finch and Joseph Spooner, was (I think) the weakest piece of Toch’s presented. Despite some fantastic moments, I wasn’t awfully convinced by Erwin Shulhoff‘s Five Pieces for String Quartet either. It never really established itself as one whole piece in five movements nor a series of five individual pieces. That bugged me, although the performance was very good indeed and most enjoyable.
Stefan Wolpe‘s Two Dances had a mechanistic quality to them from time to time, particularly in the opening Blues. Very occasionally that mechanical quality was almost nauseating, but it really felt like part of the point. Lacking any major distinction between the two movements (Blues and Tango aren’t as stylistically separate as their titles imply), I felt like the music was about to fall apart only half way through. Yet, that all seemed part of Wolpe’s plan. The music stumbled forward in everything from humorous pratfalls to terrifying lunges (it’s not surprising to note this was the era of Charlie Chaplin and the dawn of the Third Reich). After the frankly arresting climax of Blues – an explosion of pianistic colour skilfully untapped by Finch until that very moment – I expected Tango to build in much the same way. How wrong I was. Tango ends with what I can only describe as the musical equivalent of a wry smile crossed with a quiet premonition of total catastrophe. A surprising piece indeed!
There were two solo piano collections by Toch. The first was his Capriccetti – a collection of five miniatures. I’ll be honest: these weren’t hugely memorable. But Finch’s playing was. In fact, placing Capriccetti before the Wolpe was a brilliant piece of programming. The not-too-exciting Toch, played with a certain amount of reserve, set the scene for the explosive Dances that followed. Finch demonstrated a total command of tone and a real sensitivity for the room. If I had to pick one feature of his piano playing for praise it would be his ability to build musical structure from tone alone. Not many pianists I’ve seen live can do that without resorting to cliché. Finch’s playing was far from clichéd; it was intelligently considered without losing its emotional impact, well-wrought without losing its spontaneity. And he avoided unnecessary visual spectacle – showboating that would have been out-of-place here. Finch’s playing is a real joy to hear. Having unleashed his full pallette by the time the Wolpe had concluded, he was free to deploy his entire arsenal in Toch’s Burlesken, which bristled with life and, in Der Jongleur, real musical wit.
Paul Hindemith‘s Eight Pieces for solo flute were perhaps the boldest thing to programme. Hindemith’s voice is fairly well known and nowhere else in the concert did we hear any wind instruments (it was all piano and/or strings). These Eight Pieces are each incredibly curt, too. Indeed, the programme book made a point of telling us just how much poise the performer requires. How true. It would be very easy to play these pieces badly; even easier to play them extremely badly. I wish I’d heard more of flautist Lisa Nelsen before the Hindemith started. Initially I found her stage presence standoffish. Perhaps if I’d already seen her in another piece I wouldn’t have felt the same way. Huge pregnant pauses and intense concentration are absolutely necessary to give Hindemith’s fragmentary miniatures a sense of coherence. Each barely constitutes a traditional musical idea. They’re more like expressive sentences, ripped from longer paragraphs, devoid of any context. They demand open and careful consideration. Cunningly – and this is testament to Hindemith’s skill – they invite you to do so without you realising that’s what they’re doing. You sort of sink into the set and, once it’s over, you want to go back to the start and have another go! I came to realise that I’d misjudged Nelsen. She had a very difficult job to do and did it with a great deal of personality, expressive beckoning and immaculate technique. I wish I’d seen more of her. Coming immediately after Toch’s Burlesken, with its ferocious conclusion, I found it even more difficult to get to grips with the early stages of the Eight Pieces than I might have done if another work had appeared in-between. I’m not suggesting the Eight Pieces had no place in the programme – they were a fantastic feature – but we could have done with a short aural sorbet before they started.
The concert finished with Finch and Hugo Ticciati in Toch’s Violin Sonata, which is quite the tour de force. I didn’t envy the performers at all. Aside from the sheer number of notes and acrobatic parts, the way the two instruments work together is in a constant state of flux. One moment the music slips and slides like two completely independent pieces played simultaneously. Then the texture turns to the kind of melody-and-accompaniment you’d expect from a century earlier. Then some counterpoint, by turns almost baroque, by others reminiscent of Schönberg. The harmonic framework was similarly fluid. It’s an exciting piece! Nevertheless, it’s a bit long for the ideas it contains. That said, we were treated to a real spectacle of a performance by Ticciati, who’s proving to be quite a star in the violin world. Watching Finch and Ticciati work together was like watching friends have a sing-song around a pub piano – it was comfortable, it came from the heart and it was rip-roaring fun. Yet, they maintained their professional cool and command of tone throughout. I didn’t envy them, but I was damn glad I heard them!
I deeply enjoyed my Saturday night and my long-needed exploration of more 1920s repertoire. Everybody in that room was aware of the history that embroils Modernism and the Weimar Republic – a history full of conflict, violence, oppression and desperate struggles for freedom. Yet, the Republic was initially established as a new kind of democracy, one that championed free speech and the arts. With jazz and the American influence on the rise, the dawn of cinema and audio recording and ever easier international travel, it must have been a very exciting time to be a composer. Saturday’s concert was a real testament to that. I hope the performers are proud.
Swept Away was performed by the Continuum Ensemble plus guests.